Inslee backs minimum wage hike

Governor will urge legislators to take up controversial issue

By Lauren Dake, Columbian political writer



Raising the minimum wage

Proposals to raise the minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour are increasingly divisive. Here’s a look at some battlegrounds on raising the minimum wage:

SEATTLE: The City Council voted this month to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Big businesses will get three or four years to phase in the increase; smaller employers get seven years. A federal lawsuit is challenging the increase.

CHICAGO: City aldermen are calling for a $15 minimum wage; state lawmakers in Illinois have placed a vote on the fall ballot asking voters whether the state’s $8 minimum wage should be increased to $10.

SAN FRANCISCO: City voters will decide in November whether to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018.

NEW YORK CITY: Mayor Bill de Blasio had asked state lawmakers to raise the state’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10.10, make future increases automatic based on inflation and allow cities to raise their starting wages up to $13.13. It appears state lawmakers will adjourn without voting on the measure.

OKLAHOMA CITY: Workers and organized labor urged city leaders to consider raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, but state lawmakers blocked the proposal by passing legislation to prohibit cities from setting their own minimum wages.

PROVIDENCE, R.I.: Workers at large hotels pushed for a $15 minimum wage that would apply only to large hotels within the city limits. State lawmakers then passed legislation that will raise the state’s $8 minimum to $9 next year, but also took away the authority of cities to set their own wage rules.

HAWAII, MARYLAND, CONNECTICUT: Leaders in all three states have voted to gradually raise the minimum wage to $10.10.

MASSACHUSETTS: Lawmakers have voted to raise the state’s $8 per hour wage to $11 by 2017.

—The Associated Press

Washingtonians have a front row seat to the minimum wage experiment that is playing out across the nation. And if Gov. Jay Inslee has his say, it won't only be the city of Seattle — where the city council recently approved gradually boosting the wage to the nation's highest at $15 an hour — that gets in on the game.

"I think we ought to have a minimum wage that reflects one fundamental principle: If you work 40 hours, you work hard and you give your employer everything you got — you ought to have a livable wage in our state. Our state minimum wage will not support that right now," Inslee told The Columbian's editorial board, noting he will be urging state lawmakers to once again raise the minimum wage this upcoming legislative session.

The economic differences between America's big cities and elsewhere have already prompted leaders in Seattle, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Oklahoma City and other cities to push to raise the minimum wage within their borders.

But The Associated Press reports efforts to increase the minimum wage are running into opposition from state lawmakers from both parties and business groups who say a patchwork of minimum wages could lead to a confusing and unequal business climate in which labor costs would vary dramatically from city to city.

Inslee highlighted raising the state's minimum wage in his 2014 state-of-the-state speech, but legislation that would have boosted the wage stalled. The state's current minimum wage is $9.32, the nation's highest.

In Oregon, state law prevents local cities from changing the state minimum wage, set at $9.10 per hour. But that hasn't stopped a group in Portland from organizing and pressuring the city to do something about the minimum wage.

Urban liberals

Seattle and Portland aren't alone. The minimum wage has emerged as perhaps the top issue of a newly emboldened, urban liberal movement that in many places is led not by governors or state lawmakers, but by local leaders backed by organized fast-food workers. After years of grappling with state and federal budget cuts, mayors and city councils are pushing back against state and federal officials who they say don't understand the income inequality of 21st-century American cities.

"So many people have been pushed out of this city," said Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, who successfully pushed to raise the city's wage to $15, more than $5 higher than the state minimum wage. "Local politicians don't have the luxury of not doing something. The state and federal governments, they've been AWOL. They haven't been engaged."

The fight to raise minimum wages has lawmakers in many states on the defensive, arguing that higher wages will lead to reductions in hours and jobs for low-income workers — and retail price increases that are likely to hit them the hardest. The business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council argues that local minimum wages could lead to a race to the bottom, where businesses locate in whatever city within a region has the lowest starting wage.

"This is a debate that's happening around the country, and although it's well-intended, it's misguided," said Cara Sullivan, a minimum wage policy expert at ALEC. "In Seattle they raised it to $15, and right across the city line it's $5 less. It increases the cost of doing business for businesses in that city. You're creating chaos from one business to the next."

Inslee said he hopes to head off that perception this legislative session.

"Everyone is in the same boat, so frankly, everyone's prices are going to go up" if a measure were to pass, he said.

Legislators respond

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed legislation in April that prohibits cities from setting their own wage after organized labor groups suggested that Oklahoma City raise its wage from $7.25 an hour — the federal minimum — to $10.10.

B.J. Marsh, a single mother in a suburb of Oklahoma City, says the $7.25 she makes requires her to choose between eating or getting to work. Marsh said her 7-year-old son began living with her father to save on expenses and allow her to work.

"I don't eat because I have to have gas in my car," she said.

Clearly, such a measure would be vetoed in Washington as long as Inslee has the pen.

"I think what we've seen with minimum wage, where there have been reasonable raises, you know, not herculean or exponential raises, that competition has been able to work itself out," Inslee said.

"It's the right thing, not only for our workers, but for the economy," he said of raising the wage. "If you have people who can't afford to go out and buy shoes for their kids, they aren't very good consumers and they don't help economic growth."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Columbian editorial board interviews Gov. Inslee

The Columbian Editorial Board interviews Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, June 12, 2014. Inslee's discussion of minimum wage begins at 35:50 and ends at 42:12.